People who have been reading my blog for a while know that I occasionally enjoy writing about “Game of Thrones”. This is in spite of the fact that no one has ever asked me my opinion on “Game of Thrones”. You’re welcome, world.
But saying anything now seems like a pile-on to basically everyone else on the planet who watched the finale. Can I add to what Aaron Rodgers, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have already said? No, I can’t. I can only subvert expectations by saying that I hope to kinda forget about the last few episodes as thoroughly as Dany kinda forgot about the Iron Fleet.
(Photo by Karen Blumberg)
Luckily, there is food to channel all my rage into. I have been trying my share of great food, without bothering to take many photos, because I am realizing that the constant documentation takes me out of the moment too much. It is no longer enjoyable for me to imagine what other people will think of what I’m eating. Also, I think Instagram is ruining food, more than even Michelin, San Pellegrino and the celebrity chef culture (btw, follow me at @bangkokglutton)!
It’s hard to get your food, though, when your server is running away from you like Dave B. and Dan W. running away from enraged GOT fans. Also, when the restaurant is turning away foreign customers when they threaten to give the restaurant their money. This is what happened at Meng Lee (Na Phra Lan Road next to Silpakorn University, open daily 11am-7pm), and I’m thinking it’s pretty lucky that I managed to slip through the door like a Faceless Man without having to unleash my crappy Thai.
You’d be right to think that it’s crazy for a Thai restaurant across the street from the Grand Palace to turn away foreigners, almost as crazy as sending out warriors to fight dead things in the dark. But then again, you’re not Meng Lee. This Thai-Chinese restaurant is a longstanding “cookshop”, a type of Bangkok-specific eatery that serves Thai-Chinese versions of Western favorites. These are the dishes that the courts of Rama IV and Rama V served to Western dignitaries to show that they were “sivalai” (the Thai term for “civilized”). As yucky as this whole enterprise might seem upon deeper examination, this “sivalai” cooking could be credited with helping the kingdom in the long run, aiding in the effort to keep Siam (all together now) the only uncolonized country in the region.
Meng Lee is — alongside fellow golden oldies Silom Pattakan, Florida Hotel Restaurant and Chairoj — part of a Dothraki-like tribe of cookshops, which serve a distinctly Bangkokian form of cuisine. It basically comes from a smattering of recipes handed down from the chefs who helmed the palaces, embassies and wealthy households offering this type of food. Because Western chefs were difficult to import into Asia, most of the chefs hired were Hainanese, who, like the “water dancers” of Essos with their swords, were blessed with sterling reputations for great cooking. As a result, the ensuing dishes ended up being a hybrid of Thai, Chinese and Western influences.
Every restaurant specializes in something different, but every cookshop serves a “steak salad”, or salat nuea san. Here the meat comes unsliced and simply panfried to an innocuous beige, set next to a green salad with a tart-sweet clear dressing that is canonically accurate (unlike GOT seasons 7 and 8).
There is also always mee krob, the crispy tart-sweet fried rice noodles dressed in tamarind and citrus that have become a Varys-ish caricature of themselves in recent years, lacquered to a cloying caramel crisp. Here, it is a soft jumble of mild crunch and tang, pleasant and comforting and not at all aggressive. Now, like the reason behind maintaining a Night’s Watch, no one knows why mee krob is always served at a cookshop. It is not particularly Western, Western-seeming or Chinese. We can only assume that, like Podrick Payne’s supposed hunkiness, it is something that simply caught on.
Not to say there isn’t anything else very Asian, because of course there is. Meng Lee is known for its beef-kale stir-fry, which, like Davos the Onion Knight, comes as you would expect, with no nasty surprises.
And then there’s the omelet. Maybe Jay Fai has spoiled us all. But this is a latter-stage Tyrion Lannister version of a crab omelet, something I might slap together hung over and resentful over the intrusion of friends I’d invited over to the house the night before.
At the end of the day, it might not be the food itself that lures you — if you make it past the Unsullied at the door — to this quiet corner shophouse oasis in the middle of everything touristy. It’s the nifty time travel that happens once you are seated: the checkered floor, the ceiling fans, and, yes, the elusive, super-shy servers. You are not transported “back” to fantasy medieval times; instead, you find yourself in mid-20th century Bangkok, when things seemed a lot simpler and the heat wasn’t quite so oppressive. Maybe this is enough reward to brave a trip through Meng Lee’s green door (BITTERSWEET).